Global ransomware threat expected to rise with AI, NCSC warns

AI is expected to heighten the global ransomware threat, says the UK's national security and intelligence agency, GCHQ. It has issued a new report which suggests artificial intelligence will almost certainly increase the volume and impact of cyber attacks in the next two years.

The near-term impact of AI on the cyber threat assessment, published by the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), a part of GCHQ, concludes that AI is already being used in malicious cyber activity and will almost certainly increase the volume and impact of cyber attacks – including ransomware – in the near term.

Among other conclusions, the report suggests that by lowering the barrier of entry to novice cyber criminals, hackers-for-hire and hacktivists, AI enables relatively unskilled threat actors to carry out more effective access and information-gathering operations.

This enhanced access, combined with the improved targeting of victims afforded by AI, will contribute to the global ransomware threat in the next two years.
Ransomware continues to be the most acute cyber threat facing organisations and businesses, with cyber criminals adapting their business models to gain efficiencies and maximise profits.

The Bletchley Declaration, agreed at the UK-hosted AI Safety Summit at Bletchley Park in November, announced a global effort to manage the risks of frontier AI and ensure its safe and responsible development.

NCSC CEO Lindy Cameron said, “The emergent use of AI in cyber attacks is evolutionary not revolutionary, meaning that it enhances existing threats like ransomware but does not transform the risk landscape in the near term.

“As the NCSC does all it can to ensure AI systems are secure-by-design, we urge organisations and individuals to follow our ransomware and cyber security hygiene advice to strengthen their defences and boost their resilience to cyber attacks.”

Analysis from the NCA suggests that cyber criminals have already started to develop criminal Generative AI (GenAI) and to offer ‘GenAI-as-a-service’, making improved capability available to anyone willing to pay. Yet, as the NCSC’s new report makes clear, the effectiveness of GenAI models will be constrained by both the quantity and quality of data on which they are trained.

The growing commoditisation of AI-enabled capability mirrors warnings from a report jointly published by the two agencies in September 2023 which described the professionalising of the ransomware ecosystem and a shift towards the “ransomware-as-a-service” model.

According to the NCA, it is unlikely that in 2024 another method of cyber crime will replace ransomware due to the financial rewards and its established business model.

James Babbage, Director General for Threats at the National Crime Agency, said, “Ransomware continues to be a national security threat. As this report shows, the threat is likely to increase in the coming years due to advancements in AI and the exploitation of this technology by cyber criminals.

“AI services lower barriers to entry, increasing the number of cyber criminals, and will boost their capability by improving the scale, speed and effectiveness of existing attack methods. Fraud and child sexual abuse are also particularly likely to be affected. “

Download the REPORT.